By Rob Burgess
My list of personal heroes now has a new entry: singer/songwriter Jonathan Coulton. I have always enjoyed his skewed take on geeky folk rock, but his latest move just put him over the top. Here’s the whole sordid affair in a timeline. It gets meta quickly:
• Feb. 4, 1992 — Seattle-based MC/producer Sir Mix-a-Lot releases his third album, “Mack Daddy”, containing the single “Baby Got Back” — an ode to oversized female posteriors. Just as he raps atop two giant faux cheeks in the accompanying video, the song similarly tops the Billboard Hot 100 chart for five weeks, winning the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance the following year.
• Aug. 31, 2006 — Coulton releases the first of four “Thing a Week” albums, culled from his weekly podcast in which he recorded a new song within a week, every week for a year. “Thing a Week One” is Coulton’s fourth album, and contains his subdued, folky rendition of “Baby Got Back”.
• Jan. 18, 2013 — Coulton discovers Fox TV show “Glee” will feature a note-for-note ripoff of his “Baby Got Back” cover for an upcoming episode. Via Twitter, Coulton says the show never contacted him and “may have even used parts of my recording.” Alex Anders, music producer for “Glee”, tweets: “Some people can’t see opportunity when it smacks them in the face.” Coulton tweets back: “Actually, I’m pretty sure I felt the smack.”
• Thursday — Fox airs the 11th episode of its fourth season of “Glee”, entitled “Sadie Hawkins”. The sixth and final song featured is the “Baby Got Back” ripoff, sung by cast member Oliver Kieran Jones. “Glee” also begins selling the pilfered arrangement on iTunes.
• Friday — Coulton posts to his website that “Glee” contacted him and said “they’re within their legal rights ... and that I should be happy for the exposure (even though they do not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it’s my version — so you know, it’s kind of SECRET exposure).” [Editor’s note: Time out. Image you’re Coulton here. What’s you move? Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Got it? Good. Game on.]
• Saturday — Coulton releases a single on iTunes entitled “Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)” which is “a cover of Glee’s cover of my cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song, which is to say it’s EXACTLY THE SAME as my original version.” Coulton pledges to donate profits from the song to The It Gets Better Project and The VH1 Save the Music Foundation, “two great causes that are directly related to the ‘Glee’ brand.”
• Sunday — Sales on iTunes of “Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)” overtake all six of the songs from the “Sadie Hawkins” episode. At 7 p.m., the song sits at No. 2 on the Singer/Songwriter chart and No. 104 of all songs on iTunes. “Charity check is going to be huge,” tweets Coulton.
This case is a lesson in copyright law and aplomb. When Coulton released his cover of “Baby Got Back”, he bought the statutory license from the Harry Fox Agency, which collects and distributes license fees to artists like Sir Mix-a-Lot. Presumably, “Glee” paid the same agency. However, anything Coulton added was his property. “I wrote a new melody for it, which this recording uses,” Coulton wrote on his website Jan. 18. This is standard operating procedure for “Glee” — Coulton is just the latest. As compiled by The Daily Dot’s Michelle Jaworski, “Glee” has “covered” covers of: “Yeah!” by Usher (feat. Ludacris and Lil’ John) (originally covered by Divisi); “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper (originally covered by Greg Laswell); and DJ Earworm’s mashup of “Fly” by Nicki Minaj (feat. Rihanna) and “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly. Probably others, too. “Glee” is supposed to champion the outcasts of the New Directions glee club, but its shameless theft sounds more like villain Sue Sylvester. Actually, Coulton is the hero and “Glee” the bully. I think Coulton should still lawyer up, but for now, he’s won. Go to www.jonathancoulton.com and spend 99 cents on “Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)”. I did. It’s great. (Probably why “Glee” nabbed it, eh?) Plus, you’ll be supporting two very worthy causes. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pure class.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robaburg.